Article: Good News for Writers in Desperate Times

What attracted you to this title? Maybe you’re like writers who send me a proposal expressing a desperate hope that getting it published will solve their financial crisis. Maybe you started a book last year and illness that no doctor could seem to identify totally stymied you. Maybe a parent has developed dementia, Alzheimer’s, and caring for her or him has chewed up all of your energy. Maybe your agent sent out your book proposal to ten editors and a year later only two have bothered to reply. Maybe you have received your fourth rejection for an article you have written. So that’s why you are reading this, desperate for some encouragement.

stormThere was once a yet-to-be-discovered writer aboard a ship in desperate straits. Here’s the situation, as described in Acts 27:14-20: “Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the ‘northeaster,’ swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.”

Would you call that a desperate time? So what happened to save the life and career of this writer-in-the-making? Here’s the captive on his way to Rome to stand trial for trumped up charges standing up before the ship’s captain and officers saying, “Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you. So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.”

So what happened? The ship was driven by the wind for two weeks until the first depth soundings indicated they were approaching land. Yet did they sail beautifully into the harbor with a band greeting them and maidens in costumes dancing a welcome? You know the answer—the ship crashed and split on rocks, but God fulfilled his promise to the apostle Paul and all aboard reached the beach safely.

But what about me?

“That’s wonderful of God to do that for the apostle Paul,” you say. “But I’ve not seen any marvelous rescues like that in my life.” Okay, I was 34 and had already written many articles when my employer, Christian Life Publications, moved from Chicago to Wheaton, IL. For me that meant a 20-mile drive through suburbia to get to work as editor of Christian Bookseller Magazine. At that time Wheaton had no apartments—and rentals for homes were beyond my bare bones salary as a married man with two children. So I laid this before the Lord in what I call pinpoint praying. “Lord, if you want us to move to Wheaton, we need the money for a down payment on a house.”

I admit I did not fast and pray constantly for days, a week, but I had four years of experience with pinpoint praying and knew God would answer. Several weeks later Joe Bayly, author and editor, spoke at the banquet of the annual Christian writers’ conference we hosted. After it he approached me and asked, “Would you be interested in editing adult lessons for David C. Cook? We’ve not had a full-time editor for six months and desperately need editing help.” That became the answer to my prayer, as with God’s help I edited and wrote lessons for six months that provided the income needed for a down payment on a three bedroom home our friends had been renting and we were able to buy. In addition, the Lord provided freelance income writing newsletters for the missions’ arm of the Baptist General Conference and advertising copy for a local ad agency. And I received my first freelance book writing assignment and edited another. Would you call that good news for a desperate writer?

Why was the apostle Paul so sure that God had sent the angel to tell him that while the ship would break up everyone would be saved? Maybe you remember one of the apostle Paul’s most frustrating experiences as a missionary. Here’s the story from Acts 16:6: “Paul and his companion s traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” Let’s stop there. The missionary preacher is stopped from preaching throughout a major area he desperately wanted to reach with the Gospel? But it gets worse. Here’s Luke’s account: “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” Wow, where do you go when God shuts door after door? Have you ever had that experience? At age 62 I was an experienced writer and editorial director, and former president of a publishing house, yet for nine months no publisher would give me a job, preferring less experienced persons because they would cost less. So what did Paul do?

A new world of opportunity

“So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.”  So far no clear indication that Paul had any idea what God wanted him to do next. I can just hear Paul say to Luke and Silas, “We’ll just keep walking until God opens a door.” A highly productive church planting evangelist just walking along, hoping something would happen at Troas. You know what happened there. The apostle Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” So he went to Philippi and a new world of opportunity opened up.

So what did God do for me when no one seemed to want me? It was May and I had just gone through a month of serious sciatic back pain, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, icing my back for 20 minutes every hour even during the night. I was at my desk just three hours a day when I finished the manuscript for the book I was writing for Dale Evans Rogers. That morning I prayed, “Lord, either I need a full-time job or I need more lucrative freelance assignments.” Will Davis, a pastor in San Antonio, would say I was praying big, as he explains in four books on praying big we did for Revell.

That afternoon the phone rang in our apartment and it was the president of Scripture Press. “I’ve received your card saying you are open to full-time employment. Would you be interested in helping us as managing editor of the curriculum department?” God gave me two and a half wonderful years with a fantastic team of editors—and let me edit the Christian Education Journal. Notice my Pray Big prayer that May morning was preceded by me sending out an oversized postcard announcing my availability.

That’s what Angie Hunt did when she was desperate. Her husband was a youth pastor and she was a mom. Did she sit down to write an article, a book? No, she sent a card to all businesses in her town announcing her availability to write news releases and advertising copy. She got so much work she couldn’t get to the book she wanted to write for two years.

Let me get back to a question I asked much earlier. When Paul on that ship in a powerful storm reported to the captain that God in a vision had promised everyone would be saved, how could he have confidence in that? Well, years before that he was in Corinth and was at a crossroads when, according to Acts 18:9 “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision. ‘Do not be afraid, keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you and no one is going to attack and harm you because I have many people in this city.” The result of that message? Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months. No wonder he wrote them three lengthy letters, of which only two have survived. Being among the people for 18 months gave him the insights about the church’s people that he had the freedom to tackle them extremely forthrightly.

Join me in 1987.  I had become president of Here’s Life Publishers 18 months earlier to a situation more desperate than I realized. No point going into the financial details, but we were so indebted to printers no one would give us credit. Our sales were not growing enough to both pay off debt and pay cash for printing. I canceled excellent book projects, sold a wonderful children’s book close to the printing stage to Tyndale House. We begged our owner, Campus Crusade for Christ, to give us funds to operate. None were forthcoming. I would wake up at three in the morning in a cold sweat, overwrought by the thought of bankruptcy and releasing 25 great staff members.

A word from the Lord

One morning while driving to work I was listening to Charles Swindoll on Insight for Living. He read Jeremiah 29:11 and it was like the Balm of Gilead. You probably know it well: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” As I walked into our offices I met Wayne Hastings, our executive vice-president, and asked, “Did you hear Charles Swindoll?” He said, “Yes,” and I said, “Let’s go into my office and pray.” We closed the door and together we claimed God’s promise to Israel in Jeremiah 29:11. Late that evening I did the Hezekiah thing. I opened my Bible to Jeremiah 29 on my praying chair and knelt in front of it. I said, “Lord, I’m done trying to rescue Here’s Life Publishers. It’s really not my company, so I am handing full control over to you. I cannot save it, but you can.” That night I slept like a baby.

So did God answer? Two weeks later the first copies of Dennis Rainey’s Building Your Mate’s Self-esteem arrived. Focus on the Family took 39,000 copies directly from the printer. We had so many orders I joined the warehouse team in packing books—we eventually sold over 100,000 plus those that Focus gave away. In March we released A Door of Hope by Jan Frank and its sales took off. In April we released Marilyn Heavilin’s Roses in December, and it sold 25,000 over the next 12 months. In May Josh McDowell’s What I Wish My Parents Knew about My Sexuality hit bookstore shelves and sold 75,000 over 12 months. July we released Josh’s Why Wait? And it was again given away by Focus on the Family and we sold over 100,000. By August we were profitable and stayed that way until we were sold to Thomas Nelson in 1992.

That’s great news, you say, but aren’t those exceptions? A month ago I met Robert Crosby for coffee at the International Christian Retail Show. Fifteen years ago Robert was pastor of a church in Burlington, MA and a writer. He had written a book on the apostle John’s relationship with Jesus. No publisher was interested. I gave him ideas on a rewrite—and as agent placed it with Multnomah Press, who released it as More than a Savior. It sold about 10,000 copies—not bad for a hardback by an unknown pastor. Then we hit a wall. Three years in a row I sent out great book proposals and no editor would touch them. I mean, they were great titles, great book ideas. He and I were at the desperation stage.

I suggested he write articles. He accepted the challenge—and in one year he placed three articles in the Pentecostal Evangel and three articles in the Discipleship Journal, reaching more than 1,100,000 readers. He’s now a professor of practical theology and over coffee told me about two articles in Christianity Today magazine, an article in Leadership, plus a bunch of other articles. God used desperation to lead him to re-invention of purpose as a writer.

Really practical ideas

These are great stories, you say, but what practical lessons can I take away as good news for me?

  1. God is not hiding, leaving you to stew in your desperation. As I interact with writers at conferences and by e-mail I so often run into desperation that results in questioning God’s presence and purpose for them. When I first learned about pinpoint praying I was 30 and spending half my days leading a team of 10 salespeople on the selling floor of Moody Bookstore and half-time evaluating manuscripts for Kenneth Taylor. A manuscript I opened had the title I Live By Faith and it revolutionized my praying. I never again questioned God’s purpose even through job changes because I was getting incredible answers to prayer. For example, in 1971 I had started as editorial director at Moody Press, but our house in British Columbia was not selling. I was living in a Moody dorm room. I prayed the most desperate prayers day after day, asking God to send a buyer for our house in Canada. During that time I was asked if I was interested in writing junior high S.S. curriculum for a new publisher of curriculum for African Americans. I said yes, having served inner city African Americans for two years and seen scads of African American kids swarm our store repeatedly. The income helped tide us over until our house sold and we could gain a mortgage for a home in Glen Ellyn, IL near a train station.
  2. Be willing to change direction and tackle something new after you see what is selling in a bookstore. A lot of authors lock into one form of printed communication, but today authors need to also explore online devotions, online magazines, blogs. Twice God gave me opportunities to write curriculum—and that led to a third form, leader’s lessons for a series on transportation for Christian Service Brigade. I’m finding women Bible teachers are writing Bible studies without paying any attention to the formats publishers are now using. This leads to rejections.
  3. Think radical change. I’ve been in this business for so long that I am wary of start-up book publishers. I’ve seen too many fail after two or three years. But I am now asking clients whether they would consider the e-book with Print on Demand as an alternative to the usual printed book at a traditional publisher. Caution is, however, in order, for I am seeing some really weird clauses in some of the small start-ups, usually what I call Mom and Pop start-ups by a frustrated writer. It’s important that you either work with an agent who knows what standard contract terms are, or you find an experienced writer who has worked with several publishers, or you can get little for your effort.
  4. Be prepared to sacrifice valuable writing time for promotion and marketing. The day of the publisher doing the promotion for you is over. In fact, if you are not well-known they are really not interested in you. So attend workshops on how to participate in the social media. You can write a blog and get little attention—or you can deliberately write blogs that generate quick response. A mom in Aurora, Colorado, responded to Lori Roeleveld about Lori’s “Deeper with Jesus in Rhode Island” blog. When she wrote that, she did not know that approximately an hour later a gunman would burst into Theater 9, where she and two daughters were watching the movie. They fell to the floor and were unhurt. That morning she wrote a blog on Facebook about her experience in the theater and it went viral. More than one million people read that blog. There were those angry at her mention of God protecting her, others who were thankful that God’s protection had over-shadowed her. What if she had said she was too tired to follow the Holy Spirit’s call to write the blog?

Remember the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: 7-14, where he speaks of the reality that we have this treasure in earthen vessels. He writes, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Later he writes about the persecution he received that “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). That’s what we are here for, to bring glory to God, even in desperate times.

One thought on “Article: Good News for Writers in Desperate Times

  1. Thank you, Les. We don’t always need such encouragement, but we all need such encouragement. If I were to pinpoint one prayer in times of desperation, it would be this. “God use my mistakes for my benefit and your glory.” Romans 8:28 is a promise that God always keeps. It affirms the truth that Nehemiah learned. God uses the rubble of our past to build our future.

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